Timothy Messer-Kruse is a professor in the School of Cultural and Critical Studies at Bowling Green State University. He is author of The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) and The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks, to be published later this year by the University of Illinois Press.
Professor Messer-Kruse seems to be an authority on the Haymarket riot and trial of 1886. He has published two books on the subject with respectable academic presses. But according to the anonymous guardians of the Haymarket Riot Wikipedia page, his knowledge of this historical event does not pass muster. I will let him tell his own story, via a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Here is a taste:
For the past 10 years I’ve immersed myself in the details of one of the most famous events in American labor history, the Haymarket riot and trial of 1886. Along the way I’ve written two books and a couple of articles about the episode. In some circles that affords me a presumption of expertise on the subject. Not, however, on Wikipedia.
The bomb thrown during an anarchist rally in Chicago sparked America’s first Red Scare, a high-profile show trial, and a worldwide clemency movement for the seven condemned men. Today the martyrs’ graves are a national historic site, the location of the bombing is marked by a public sculpture, and the event is recounted in most American history textbooks. Its Wikipedia entry is detailed and elaborate.
A couple of years ago, on a slow day at the office, I decided to experiment with editing one particularly misleading assertion chiseled into the Wikipedia article….
When Messer-Kruse made some corrections to the Wikipedia page based on his scholarly knowledge of the subject, here is what happened:
Within minutes my changes were reversed. The explanation: “You must provide reliable sources for your assertions to make changes along these lines to the article.”
That was curious, as I had cited the documents that proved my point, including verbatim testimony from the trial published online by the Library of Congress. I also noted one of my own peer-reviewed articles. One of the people who had assumed the role of keeper of this bit of history for Wikipedia quoted the Web site’s “undue weight” policy, which states that “articles should not give minority views as much or as detailed a description as more popular views.” He then scolded me. “You should not delete information supported by the majority of sources to replace it with a minority view.”
The “undue weight” policy posed a problem. Scholars have been publishing the same ideas about the Haymarket case for more than a century. The last published bibliography of titles on the subject has 1,530 entries.
“Explain to me, then, how a ‘minority’ source with facts on its side would ever appear against a wrong ‘majority’ one?” I asked the Wiki-gatekeeper. He responded, “You’re more than welcome to discuss reliable sources here, that’s what the talk page is for. However, you might want to have a quick look at Wikipedia’s civility policy.”
I tried to edit the page again. Within 10 seconds I was informed that my citations to the primary documents were insufficient, as Wikipedia requires its contributors to rely on secondary sources, or, as my critic informed me, “published books.” Another editor cheerfully tutored me in what this means: “Wikipedia is not ‘truth,’ Wikipedia is ‘verifiability’ of reliable sources. Hence, if most secondary sources which are taken as reliable happen to repeat a flawed account or description of something, Wikipedia will echo that.”